Everything you ought to know about Sanskritization

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The term sanskritisation was coined and used by M. N. Snnivas to describe the process of cultural mobility in the traditional social structure of Indian society. In his study among the Coorgs of erstwhile State of Mysore, he found that lower castes, in order to raise their position in the caste hierarchy, adopted some Brahmanic customs and gave up some of their own considered to be impure by the higher castes. For instance, they gave up meat-eating, consumption of liquor, offering of animal sacrifice to their deities; they imitated the Brahmans in matters of dress, food and rituals. By doing this within a generation or so they could claim higher positions in the social order.

In other words, they thought the higher castes should accept them as their equals and would treat them with honour and dignity. To denote this process of social mobility Srinivas had first used the term ‘Brahmanisation’. But in deed, he found it difficult to keep in circulation the concept of Brahmanisation in sociological and social anthropological paralance. Therefore, subsequently he replaced it by more appropriate term, namely Sanskritisation.

Indeed, Sanskritisation is a much broader concept than Brahmanisation. Srinivas found that the process which prompted lower castes to imitate customs of the Brahmans in Mysore was a specific case of general tendency among several lower castes to imitate and emulate the cultural ways of higher castes whom they treated as their models. In many cases these higher castes were not Brahmans; they were Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Higher Shudras in various regions of the country. The critical notion about the caste system is that the hierarchy of castes is theoretically represented by the Varna’s. There are four Varna’s, the Brahman, the Kshatriya, the Vaishya and the Shudra in the same hierarchical order throughout the country; and the individual castes and sub-castes, with the exterior castes of the system, can be clarified on the basis of Varna order.

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The Dalits traditionally have been outside the Varna order and they constituted the lowest rung of the caste stratification and hierarchy. The Dalits, who practised Varna professions, are not clubbed together in respect of status positions. They are also ranged in hierarchical order depending on the purity and pollution and notion of their occupations. The Brahmans invariably occupied the top position in the Varna hierarchy and have been attributed the top-most position and are respected as purest members in the caste system.

They formed the priestly class and have the monopoly to read and interpret the scriptures. Their association with the Hindu sacred text through institutionalised means they have the prerogative to be treated on priority basis and are assigned the mundane divine position. They are treated as the varitable custodian of Hindu tradition and therefore, they maintained stricter conformity with the ideal norms of Hindu tradition.

With the passage of time exposure to western education and secular forces, the orthodox Brahmanic tradition got diluted and the Brahmans themselves compromised with the change. Thus, the expectation of high ritual practice from the Brahmans progressively declined. The caste norms too become less strict for various castes to lower down in the hierarchical order. As a result, one finds for the Dalit castes deviated from the ideal norms and it was tolerated by the caste-Hindus.

In other words where the Dalit castes internalised the depotment and demeanour of higher castes, there was no reaction from the latter. Therefore, in the social structure of the caste system the hierarchy of social positions coincided with the hierarchy of expectations of conformity to prescribed Hindu social conduct. Deviance from the norms by the lower and Dalit castes were gradually tolerated but at some stages this was resisted became some Dalits attempted to emulate higher Hindu norms which were supposed to be the monopoly of Brahmans and other higher castes.

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Caste is a closed society. Status and some occupations are ascriptive and therefore free mobility of castes in the hierarchical order is an impossibility. In spite of these closure there have been instances of changes in caste hierarchy and its norms from time to time. For instance, what was culturally accepted as sanskritic during the Vedic period in Hinduism was in some cases a taboo in the post-Vedic period. Vedic Hinduism was magico-animistic, Vedic Brahmans drunk some liquor and offered animal sacrifice and ate beef. These were prohibited in the following period and an exception was made in cases of lower and Dalit castes. However, the hierarchical principle remained unaltered. The hierarchical principle I consolidated the caste system. The twin concept of purity and pollution comprised the hallmark of caste society.

Srinivas says Sanskritisation is the process of cultural and social mobility which is disallowed in the traditional Hindu social order. Sanskritisation is an endogenous and localised version of social change. Yogendra Singh says that Sanskritisation is a culturally specific case of the universal motivation toward ‘anticipatory socialisation’ of the culture of the higher group in the hope of gaining its status in future. Sanskritisation is a unique historical explanation of the general process of acculturation as a means for vertical social mobility.

Yogendra Singh writes that there are two levels of meaning which are implicit in Sanskritisation and which have been made use of by Srinivas interchangeably. He calls them ‘historical specific’ and ‘contextual specific’. In historical specific sense, Sanskritisation refers to those processes in Indian history which led to changes in various castes. It is indicative an indigenous source of social change in the broad historical spectrum of India. In contextual specific sense, Sanskritisation denotes contemporaneous

processes of cultural imitation of upper castes by lower castes or sub-castes in different parts of India. The nature of this type of Sanskritisation is some what uniform as the content of cultural norms of customs being imitated may vary from Hindu traditional forms to tribal patterns.

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A diversity of patterns has been found in the contextual process of Sanskritisation. Studies indicate that in many places lower castes imitate the customs of the Kshatriyas and not that of the Brahmans and in some cases, tribes have been reported to have imitated the customs of caste Hindus. In some cases a reverse trend has also been reported that higher castes have imitated the customs of tribals. This has happened particularly where higher caste-Hindus have settled in tribal areas.

People have not only imited the endogenous patterns but also have imited exogenic traditions, particularly in northern India some caste Hindu have borrowed in varying degrees Islamic culture ways. However, according to Srinivas these are various forms of acculturation which fall outside the scope of sanskritisation. Beyond this a process of cultural interaction between the sanskritic and other orthogenetic traditions, such as those of the lower castes and the tribes, has always existed in India. This makes difficult to define the nature of Sanskritisation.

Srinivas has been changing the definition of Sanskritisation from time to time. Initially he defined it as the tendency among the lower castes to move higher in the caste hierarchy in a generation or two by adopting vegetarianism and teetotalism and sanskritising the ritual and pantheon. He writes, “the caste system is far from a rigid system in which proposition of each component caste is fixed for all time.

Movement has always been possible, and especially so in the middle region of the hierachy. The low castes have been able, in a generation or two, to rise to the higher position in the hierarchy by adopting vegetarianism and teetolalism and by sanskritising its ritual and pantheon. In short, it took our, as for as possible, the customs, rites and beliefs of the Brahmans, and the adoption of the Brahmanic way of life by a low caste seems to have been frequent, though theoretically forbidden.

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The process has been called “Sanskritisation” in difference to “Brahminisation” as certain Vedic rites are confined to the Brahmans and the two other’ twice-born’ castes”. Sanskritisation is equated with the imitation of the Brahmanical customs or textual Hindu customs and manners by lower castes,. Srinivas subsequently redefined sanskritisation,” as a process by which a low Hindu caste, or tribal, or other group changes its customs, ritual, ideology and the way of life in the direction of a high, frequently, ‘twice-born’ castes”. Generally such changes are followed by a stake on higher position in the social order than that traditionally conceded

to the claimant caste by the local community. The revised definition of sanskritisation by Srinivas is certainly much broader. It is not confined to only Brahmans as a reference group as well as not to the imitation of only rituals and religious practices. It now connotes imitation of ideologies. Ideology, here, refers to various thematic aspects of Hindu tradition. According to Srinivas sanskritisation not only means the adoption of new customs and habits but also exposure to new ideas and values which have found frequent expression in Hindu texts. These values and ideas are both sacred and secular. Karma, Dharma, Papa, Maya, Samsara and Moksha are examples of some of the common Hindu theological ideas. When people become sanskritised these terms occur frequently in their talk.

There is a theoretical implication in the meaning of sanskritisation as an ideological borrowing process. It broadens the connotation of the term sanskritic to include both sacred and secular elements of culture. Through sanskritisation often only secular status symbols of the higher castes are imitated by the lower castes. For example, some lower castes emulate style of life of an influential high caste person. For instance, the conspicuous ‘ style of betel chewing, wearing of gold ornaments, shoes and other forms of dresses which are normally practise by people of great influence in society are imitated by lower caste people.

There is also a problem in integrating the concept of dominance or power with the process of sanskritisation. The phenomenon of dominance introduces the structural element in the sanskritisation model of social change. In this connection, Srinivas correlates the processes of caste mobility with the fluidity of political system. Srinivas contends the many dominant caste in the past ascended to higher positions within the caste hierarchy either through royal decrees or through formation of autonomous political power.

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The process of sanskritisation discussed here, the good example of “historical specific” usage of this term. It refers to succession or circulation of dominant groups in Indian society through rise and fall of power, through conflicts and war and through political stratagems. All these are illustrative of structural change which a concept like sanskritisation does not connote fully.

The meaning of sanskritisation bears no logical relationship to the “contextual specific” connotation of this concept. Sanskritisation, in this sense does not lead to a real ascendance to a higher caste status or to real power. Structural change is impossible in the Hindu social order as the hierarchical order of caste is based on general agreement of all the caste groups. By merely sanskritising the style of life a caste or sub- caste cannot claim to have social position, which shatters the age-old and traditional hierarchical order.

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